****TO PETER IMMORTAL****

Hi, Peter.

I was in the process of entitling this piece “requiem,”  but a requiem is a composition  for the already dead, and you aren’t and won’t be. Not allowed. Then I thought of “World Without Peter”, but that wouldn’t do either. As long as  those who love, admire and remember you are walking the earth, you will be with us and there can be no world without

PETER IMMORTAL

Not so very long ago, you came into my life as a ninth grader when I was teaching drama at Berkeley High (Well, it was actually West Campus, not Berkeley High proper, but, lordy, you know the rest of the world doesn’t want to hear about that.) You recall we were to do a musical with a cast made up of ninth graders only. Elliott and I settled quickly on Cabaret.  Kind of juicy for ninth graders (you probably didn’t think so), but the male vocals aren’t too demanding, which you know is a major criterion for youngsters. Plenty of female parts. Also a major criterion. And as for you? Even then you could play show piano like nobody’s business.

Well, we did that show to loud applause, and in the process discovered a whole troupe of singers, dancers, actors, and outstanding human beings who went on to perform one show biz miracle after another from Pajama Game to Company and beyond. And you were still the center of the whole group. And come graduation, it didn’t stop.

Many of you in that sterling group went on to higher ed. and professional theater careers. I was privileged to share in all that by virtue of directing most of the Berkeley High shows and becoming friends with many of you. It was an experience richer than most college and many professionals ever touch. And you were still at the center of it all. Whether at the piano or singing or acting, if you touched it, it turned to gold.

Somewhere, in the midst of all this, the way I remember it, you and I decided to create a show of our own. I was the writer, having done some playwriting and song writing. (You’re no slouch at lyrics yourself, of course.) The idea of working with you, an already accomplished musician even at that young age, was heady. How to choose a project, though?

I don’t recall the process we went through to decide on a play about Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper? A musical? Yep. I’m sure the choice had something to do with your adoration of Stephen Sondheim. I’m sure as well that the influence of Sweeney Todd came to bear. All that matters not, though. We finally came up with a show we called Whitechapel, after the hard-knocks district on London’s East End where Jack the R. did his bloody work.

To my surprise and gratification, after you matriculated at Yale, you eventually arranged for Whitechapel to become a senior project not only for yourself, the composer, but for a number of other Yalee’s as well. Set design. Costume design, etc. You assembled a marvelous company. Me, I stayed back in Berkeley teaching and communicating with the production as best I could while everyone else was in New Haven creating and rehearsing.

Then came production time. I flew east for a week or so. The performance venue was a dining hall, but we uninitiated needed to toss out any images we might have had of a typical college cafeteria-style eatery. This is a stone, high-ceiling, Gothic Revival space entirely evocative of the late nineteenth century atmosphere of poverty and violence our play demands. One slight problem was that people insisted on eating there. Daily. No respect for us artists. Thus, each day we moved furniture and scenery back and forth and created our Victorian hell. Then, rehearsal over, we put it all back together for the next day’s feast.

You, of course, had been the main inspiration for the whole project. As the music director, you had enormous responsibility, and you had garnered enormous respect from the entire company from crew to orchestra to cast. Looking back, I marvel at what a stupendous achievement it all was. And, oh, we had those dreams of skipping off from New Haven to Broadway. That didn’t happen, but what did happen was the creation of what the hundreds of those of us involved in creating it, and all the spectators privileged to see and hear it, remember as a perfectly splendid piece of theater. More important, it was and will always be one important aspect of my life with you,

PETER IMMORTAL

My eternal love to you

Carl

 


SHIRLEY’S ALL DANCING ALL THE TIME

 

Shirley Read-Jahn’s memoir, Dancing Through Life, is as joyous as its title promises. Not that there are no trials and tribulations in the accounts of the seventy-plus years she describes. No, indeed. But the point of all of them for her is to keep dancing and laughing and hoping and loving it all.

She has such a fascinating background, that it seems like a made-for-a -memoir script, though that was certainly not her purpose. Her purpose was not writing it, but living it. She started life in England, 1944, with her (somewhat) older sister, making her a near-contemporary of mine. Both of us war time babies, except I spent the war safe and sound in the USA, and my father was not a philandering British spy. That’s just for starters.

She grew up in both countries and spoke both languages (her propensities for languages is something else I don’t share with her.) She also had a wanderlust I could but imagine. For that, she was born into exactly the right time and circumstance. Around the world she went, she and her vagabond sister, fully immersed in the “hippie-ness” of the sixties and seventies. Her mother and father divorced, leaving their girls a bit rootless and hankering for adventure, a hankering they’ve spent a lifetime indulging. The countries and continents they’ve explored are enough to make for a full and instructive read. And always, always, fun.

She’s an Australian right now, pursuing writing and belly-dancing. Not many can live up to that sentence, but it only touches the surface of this exuberant life. I feel I know her through these pages, and I will live always jealous of her derring-do and the adventurous years she’s lived and will continue to create as her future unfolds. This is a volume 1, so please send volume 2 our way, Shirley, and soon.

 

 


L’HEREUX MAKES ME NOT HAPPY

John L’Heureux is a well-known literary personage, though I’ve read little of his work until The Beggar’s Pawn crossed my path.

I usually find it easy to detach my personal feelings about a book’s characters and events and judge according to literary values. I also try to avoid spoilers. With this one, though, I’m making an exception.

Whatever the novel’s other virtues, I cannot forgive L’Heureux for having a father drown his little daughter. The event, to my mind is both graphic and unnecessary.

Nothing else to say.


LOUISE ERDRICH TRIUMPHS ONCE MORE

The Night Watchman. Doesn’t sound much like an Erdrich title, does it? The Last Report On the Miracles At Little No Horse, Antelope Wife, The Painted DrumIt takes only a few pages, though, to demonstrate that we are squarely in Louise’s territory.

It’s the early 1950’s. The Turtle Mountain Chippewas are imperiled. A racist congressman has introduced a bill relieving government of all responsibility for the tribe so that they can live more responsible American lives. That his proposal abrogates the treaty that promised them their land (scant and poor as it is) “as long as the grass grows and the river flows” is of no consequence to this guy.

LOUISE ERDRICH

Put that way, this sounds like a social protest book, and that element is certainly part of the picture. However, Erdrich grounds the saga in Native American family life. Love, sex, survival, integrity. In some ways, this is a coming of age book for protagonist “Pixie” who keeps trying to change what people call her to “Patrice” as one way of growing up. People try, but it’s a struggle. It might sound like a trivial thing that is important only to one young woman, but her battle is emblematic of the struggle for identity of an entire people. They’re trying hard to survive and stay sane and stay themselves in the face of hostile campaigns from all sides. And of course this has been going on for generations.

And what of the night watchman? He takes his lunch pail to work every night to guard a warehouse. And to write the script for the tribe’s defense against the ugly legislation. And to commune with an owl who keeps visiting for purposes baffling and mysterious.

As always in an Erdrich tale, there’s generous comedy here. Of note to me is one scene where a stallion takes off after a mare in heat and disrupts a parade. I was reminded of a sequence in Little No Horse where a sled is hijacked by a runaway moose, and we follow his bouncing balls across a lake.

But comical as some of the novel is, it is also painful and touching. We love these characters and we love following their travails. And I love the ending. A true surprise of the most pleasing and profound sort.

Thanks again, Louise. You’ve enriched my life yet again.


VOICE FROM OLD POMPEII

Ancient Rome is not my ordinary stomping grounds. For some reason, avid as I am about a wide range of history, my interest in Rome has mainly been confined to its relations vis a vis Britain. In my travels, I’ve been awed by the omnipresent ruins of the empire. Every continent seems to present with an amphitheater or a collection of decapitated columns or some such splendid ruin. However, a friend suggested I take a look at Pliny.

Pliny the Elder? I knew the name, but little else. Oh, there is a boutique beer by that name recently introduced in our area. Haven’t tried it yet, though. My Google oracle says there will be a Pliny the Younger introduced this very year. I have work to do, don’t I?

At any rate, my friend suggested that In The Shadow of Vesuvius would be a good place to start, so here we are.

For those who are as ignorant as I was before I opened Daisy Dunn’s work,

DAISY DUNN

Pliny the Elder was the uncle of Pliny the Younger, who adopted the young man, whose father died young, at an early age. Pliny and his mother thus came under the care of the Elder. The family was wealthy and well-educated, and Pliny had a scholarly bent thus taking after his learned uncle, who wrote volumes about the area around Vesuvius–flora, fauna, history. Then came 79 A.D. (CE if you’re in museumspeak).

The volcano had been inactive for many long years, but not that year. Without much warning, the mountain started gushing fire, smoke, and death. Pliny the Elder was killed, probably trying to help victims escape the holocaust. Pliny the Younger survived and inherited an enormous collection of property, possessions, and slaves all located around Lake Como. A fascinating if perilous beginning for a young adult, but Pliny was up to it.

He proved as assiduous about writing and study as his uncle. He also fashioned himself a political career, drawing on his knowledge of law and his writing skills. He defended and prosecuted. He delivered hours-long speeches on the floor of the Senate, (The Senate still had a couple of centuries to go before Diocletian essentially abolished it.), and emperors took notice of him and his skills.

Pliny worked long hours with few breaks. He wrote history, and like his uncle, was interested in horticulture. He conducted numerous agricultural experiments, his vast landholding giving him access to a variety of soils, moisture, and sun exposure. And always he was writing, sometimes to explore matters appropriate to his great intellect, sometimes to acquit himself in court, sometimes to curry favor with an emperor (which could be a matter of life or death).

His was a remarkable and aristocratic life, and apparently his observations are the best record we have of first century Rome. Pretty fascinating stuff.

A note about the author. Ms. Dunn is quite the scholar herself, noting that she has done a lot of her own translating of the Greek and Latin documents she used for her research. In another life, I’ll be able to cruise through various languages in that manner. In the meantime, all I can do is worship from afar.